February 25, 2014 at 10:57 am

Dingell, Levin departures will shift Michigan's clout

Lawmakers are longtime allies to carmakers, had key Capitol Hill roles

Washington— The retirements of Rep. John Dingell — the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history — and Michigan’s senior senator, Carl Levin, promise to reshape the state’s political clout and pose a challenge to the state’s shrinking congressional delegation.

Dingell, D-Dearborn, said Monday in Southgate he will retire at the end of the year after a 59-year career in Congress, while Levin, D-Detroit — the longest serving senator in Michigan history — announced last year he would not seek a seventh six-year term.

Dingell and Levin long helped the auto industry fight regulatory efforts automakers argue are unduly costly and complex. When Dingell lost the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship in 2008 to California’s Henry Waxman in an intraparty fight, it reflected the growing influence of environmentalists in the Democratic Party with which automakers must deal.

Dingell will be replaced by a new member of Congress, who will be among the lowest of 435 members in seniority. Detroit Regional Chamber’s President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah said Dingell’s “pending retirement is a true loss for Michigan and the nation. Congress today is bereft of leaders providing adult supervision — who can reach across the aisle and find common ground.”

Bill Ballenger of the Insider Michigan Politics newsletter in Lansing agreed.

“It’s the passing of the guard losing all these Democrats with all this seniority,” said Ballenger, noting Michigan lost longtime Flint congressman Dale Kildee two years ago to retirement. “It gives a chance for all these Democrats to gain experience and clout, but it is going to take them a long time.”

At least one House Republican argued Monday the Michigan GOP’s growing influence in the House means the state’s concerns will continue to be heard by the House speaker and others. Four of Michigan’s nine GOP House members chair committees, including Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph on House Energy and Commerce and Rep. Dave Camp of Midland on the tax-writing Ways & Means. The state House delegation also has five Democrats.

“It is going to be a big change,” Camp told The Detroit News Editorial Board as he praised Dingell for treating him as an equal and being a “consummate” legislator. “But politics are always changing.”

While Dingell is a legendary Michigan politician, “we’re all replaceable,” he said.

Even with the Dingell and Levin retirements, Michigan has other Democrats who will continue to play key roles on auto issues because they hold important committee positions. U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, is the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, while U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, chairs the Agriculture Committee.

Dingell has played a key role in bringing together Republicans and Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation on issues of importance to the state or to meet with key business leaders from the state — especially the CEOs of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Dingell has organized bipartisan trips to the North American International Auto Show for members of Congress and worked with presidents from both parties.

“His presence is a real loss in having a dialogue between the House Democrats and House Republicans,” said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing Republican consultant and analyst.

“Dingell — even though he was a real true-blue liberal labor Democrat — prided himself on working relationships with Republicans,” Ballenger said.

One reason Levin and Dingell have stayed on well past retirement age is the committee system “rewards longevity,” said T.J. Bucholz, a Lansing-based political consultant.

“I’m sure good people will take their place, but it doesn’t take the place of seniority and that’s the name of the game in losing Levin, Dingell, and possibly John Conyers, as well, in the committee system,” he said.

Auto leaders recognized Dingell’s key role Monday.

“He has been a key voice for bringing people together throughout his tenure and focused on delivering results,” said Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr., whose company’s headquarters are in Dingell’s district.

Dingell also organized the Michigan congressional Democrats’ efforts ahead of Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Dingell aided Chrysler Corp. in avoiding extinction by getting a government loan in 1979 and later helped General Motors and Chrysler avoid liquidation and win more than $60 billion in government bailout loans in 2008-09. In August 2008, he called Upton before 7 a.m. to begin mounting a campaign to save the two Detroit automakers during the financial meltdown.

But the Big Three have seen their clout shrink on Capitol Hill as automakers closed dozens of factories and exited production in states like Georgia, Minnesota and Delaware.

The first attempt to get bailout money in late 2008 in the Senate was defeated by Republican senators from Southern states with foreign transplant operations. Dingell and Levin later helped convince President Barack Obama to redirect federal Troubled Asset Relief Program aid to Chrysler and General Motors after President George W. Bush had given the two automakers governmental assistance in late December 2008.

Dingell has clashed repeatedly with environmentalists and Democratic colleagues over emissions standards, safety requirements and other auto legislation. But the congressman also prodded automakers to improve.

In early 2007, Dingell visited the Big Three CEOs in their Michigan offices to tell them it was time to make a deal to hike fuel efficiency standards.

“I pushed for the highest technically achievable standards, but I also pushed for them in a way that did not destroy the auto industry,” Dingell said in an interview last year.

That December, Dingell reached agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on a bill raising fuel efficiency standards at least 40 percent to a fleetwide 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The Obama administration ultimately reached a deal to boost requirements to 54.5 mpg by 2025 — with Dingell trying to ensure the higher mileage mandate didn’t hurt automakers.

But the standards are still expected to cost automakers about $200 billion through 2025.

As recently as 2012, Dingell helped automakers fend off proposed legislation that would have boosted maximum fines for delaying recalls to $250 million — up from $17 million. Instead, Congress raised the fines to $35 million and dropped nearly all of the proposed safety mandates.

The respect Levin and Dingell both command on Capitol Hill will be difficult to replace, Mitchell said.

“Both of these figures — Carl Levin and John Dingell — are so well respected and have clout because of this,” he said. “Michigan has to be diminished in its clout with their retirements.”

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U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, was elected in 1955 to a seat his father, who died of a heart attack, held. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
Michigan loses both Dingell, left, and Sen. Carl Levin, here with ... (Saul Loeb / Getty Images)
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, shown in 1979, is known for working with ... (AP)
Like his father, Dingell was a proponent of universal health care. (Win McNamee Getty Images / Getty Images)